On Independence Day I left behind the pomp and circumstance for a day of fly-fishing and solitude along mountain tributaries.
This was an uncanny decision for a “people person” like myself. On most holidays, and particularly the Fourth, you’ll usually find me mingling with a range of characters, tossing back beers and enjoying the festivities. But this year I needed some time to myself.
I guess I had a lot going on. In early September I’m marrying the woman of my dreams. I just came off an emergency operation, which has fortunately restored me to strong health. And the following day marked my quarter century mark.
But it wasn’t a day of reflection I was after so much as it was a day of living in the present.
At 8 a.m. I headed over to one of my favorite trout rivers in the world: the Middlebury River. It was just past the tail end of peak trout fishing season and the water temperature was teetering around that 70-degree mark, which seems to indicate whether a catch-and-release trout will live to see another day.
I’ve never kept a trout that I’ve caught. But I figured if I caught a trout on the Middlebury that day, I’d call it dinner later that night.
Descending down to the river’s edge, reflections from the sun danced off the running water. Trees rustled softly in the wind and birds flitted to and fro.
The second I entered the cold creek, my blood pressure immediately dropped. There’s something that a running river does for the soul. It settles it, and makes you calm and fluid.
Up to 60 percent of a human body is comprised of water (78 percent in babies), and water — one of the world’s most powerful yet malleable resources — is strongly affected by its environment.
To illustrate the effect of merely sound on water, a Japanese scientist in the late 1980s took water droplets from the same water source and placed them in positive and negative environments before freezing them. The droplets that were exposed to prayers and messages of kindness turned into beautiful, frozen crystals. The droplets that were exposed to rhetoric from Adolf Hitler and other hate-filled messages turned into gnarled, frozen globs.
So when I find myself fly-fishing in the middle of a river, I imagine all of those water droplets moving in harmony with the stream. It’s like my body tunes to the chords and progressions of the river.
Fly-fishing in and of itself is all about synchronicity. I’ve been fly-fishing for just over a year, so I’m no master, but the key to fly-fishing, in many ways, is finding that link between oneself and one’s surroundings. The trout angler must match the hatch of insects or create a true-to-life situation to best mimic nature if he or she is to get even a nibble from a trout.
Aside from those complex intricacies, the ability to cast a fly effortlessly is essential to fly-fishing.
As Norman Maclean put it in his fly-fishing classic “A River Runs Through It,” casting a fly “is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock.”
Casting a fly is also about the calmness and evenness of the soul. It is an art that relies so heavily on finesse and discipline that when either of those elements are replaced by power, aggression or, worst of all, frustration, an angler’s line will turn into an intricate spider web within seconds.
“If you have never picked up a fly rod before, you will soon find it factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess,” wrote Maclean.
When I find myself casting most fluidly, I’m not thinking at all. My best casts come when I turn my thoughts off and simply cast in rhythm with the stream.
On that morning, I didn’t have much luck on the Middlebury. And as the day grew hotter, I decided to head up into Ripton to fish the river’s headwaters.
After driving down a five-mile stretch of forest road, I reached a beautiful little brook about a quarter the size of the river I had just been fishing. As I left my car, butterflies scattered from wildflowers, dragonflies the size of fists buzzed across the sky and numerous light-colored flies danced on the surface of the stream.
The brook was a verdant sight to behold, with lush green moss and lichen growing from every nook and cranny. I stepped into the first pool, and two small brook trout immediately shot through the crystal clear water. The water temperature was about 60 degrees and the brook was completely shaded by dense forest.
I headed down the stream, crawling over boulders and walking around deep pools, so as not to disturb any trout that might be resting. I was hopeful I’d catch something. But even if I didn’t, I knew I’d still enjoy a nice scurry along the silent stream. If I did catch something, I didn’t plan to keep it.
After about a quarter mile, I turned back upstream and tied a white wulff fly to the end of my leader. These dry flies are said to be the first flies to use hair for the wings and tail. The legendary angler Lee Wulff invented them.
Nestled between steep banks and surrounded by overhanging trees, I didn’t dare cast straight above my head. I kept my nine-foot, five-weight rod almost parallel to the ground and made small but controlled casts into the tiny pools.
I hadn’t heard another human voice in hours and only the faintest thoughts trickled through my mind. I stealthily moved from pool to pool under the cool shade of the trees, careful not to make so much as a sound.
Arriving almost halfway back to where I began, I came across a seven-to-eight-foot pool with a three-foot waterfall pouring into it.
“If I’m going to catch anything,” I thought to myself, “it’s going to be here.”
I began false casting, a technique used to dry the fly and let out line, until the fly was right where I wanted it. The fly dropped naturally on the edge of where the running and still water met. It drifted into the clear, placid side of the pool, when a brook trout, 9-10 inches long, appeared.
It moved out from beneath an overhanging rock, positioned itself beneath the wulff, and jumped through the still surface, devouring the fly. I brought in the trout and held its smooth, glistening body in my hands before returning it to the pool. It swam away, and I moved up the stream, casting to no avail.
When I returned to my car, I realized I had been gone for about three hours. I turned the key and the gas light came on. Five miles into the depths of the Green Mountain Forest, there wasn’t much I could do but hope for the best.
When I reached the Middlebury Bread Loaf Campus, I knew I’d be OK. I popped the clutch into neutral and coasted down the west side of the Green Mountains, past the Robert Frost Trail, past the Sand Hill Bridge, past the Waybury Inn and into East Middlebury.